By Reggie Bridges, Pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Ruston
After the smoke of spent fireworks disappear and red, white and blue paraphilia is formally retired after Fourth of July activities, I often step back and assess our church’s involvement in a so-called “patriotic” service.
Such introspection has taken on new meaning this year as I read articles, blogs, and tweets that denounced any expression of patriotism within church life.
With measured guilt, I sifted through these indictments of churches (and their pastors) that violated God’s Word by allowing any celebration of our freedom and recognition of veterans.
As I finished reading these perspectives, I felt that I had committed idolatry, or at the very least, I was theologically deficient for allowing such a service.
Many who expressed disappointment in patriotic services were well-respected, learned people who appeared to have theology and reason on their side.
I was all but convinced that I should join the ranks of the liberated, theologically robust reformers who cast off such expressions in our churches – but then I decided to work through these issues for myself instead of following the commonly accepted tweetology of my generation.
Is a patriotic service always inappropriate in the church context? Is it theological treason to include a celebration of freedom? These were but a couple of questions I contemplated. And my conclusion to these two questions: Absolutely not!
Please don’t misunderstand me. I certainly recognize that a patriotic service can have the wrong focus, but so can a Baccalaureate service, a Mother’s Day service, and a Child Dedication service.
Any service could become man-centered rather than Christ-centered. Yet, we do not cancel all of our special themed services out of fear that they will be hijacked by man. Instead, we plan accordingly so that we can keep our worship centered firmly upon the Lord.
What I have learned is a patriotic service, if rightly observed, can bring glory to God and be used to further theological depth.
As a pastor/practitioner, I want to propose some ways in which I have seen this happen.
First, a patriotic service provides a context in which to thank the Lord for the political/social freedom He has granted us.
Every good gift comes from above, including our political/social freedom! We are so blessed to have this freedom, and we should take time to thank Him for it.
Our celebration of freedom does not mean that we are superior to those believers around the world who contend against authoritarian regimes; rather, it recognizes the blessing of freedom in our lives.
Second, a patriotic service allows us to articulate the Baptist distinctive of religious freedom.
“A free church in a free state” was the axiom expressed by Baptist theologian, E. Y. Mullins. Baptists traditionally have held that the gospel flourishes when a free church exists within a free state, and they have sought to maintain that religious freedom.
I believe it is permissible to express gratitude for veterans who served to protect freedom within the church setting while noting that their efforts have actually promoted the gospel’s advance.
Indeed, we can observe that America’s freedom has provided the context in which we were able to launch one of the greatest missionary movements in church history.
Third, a patriotic service presents an opportunity for us to expound and encourage Christian citizenship.
Although the Scripture speaks about the believer’s relationship to earthly kingdoms and our own “Baptist Faith and Message” entails articles that address such issues, we often neglect teaching upon this subject.
Think of the instructional richness one can find here. We can use the occasion to urge believers to pray for all elected officials (1 Timothy 2:2), regardless of political affiliation. We can remind them to respect the law and live rightly with their neighbor (Romans 13:1-10).
We can encourage them to be the salt and light of our society, promoting what is good in the community (Matthew 5:13-16). This may mean that they cry out against injustice or speak up for the vulnerable as they assume a prophetic role in our nation.
Simply speaking, we can underscore a tremendous reality of our citizenship: With tremendous freedom comes the responsibility to make a difference for Christ.
Fourth, the patriotic service gives us a moment to proclaim the King and His Kingdom. I know that my ultimate allegiance supersedes geographical boundaries and temporal leaders. My citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and my orders come from Jesus Christ.
This is the realization we should leave with those who attend the patriotic service. Each individual should hear that all nations and leaders will eventually bow before Him. Therefore, every one should submit to His Lordship now.
Fifth, a patriotic service provides a venue to declare that spiritual freedom comes through Christ alone.
I am convinced that no patriotic service is complete until we take the theme of freedom and relate it to our spiritual liberation.
As believers we understand what real freedom is because we have been extricated from our sin through the power of Jesus Christ.
We were enslaved to sin itself, but we are now freed (and forgiven!) through the blood of our Lord. Proclaim that message to all who attend. For if the Son makes a person free, he is free indeed! (John 8:36)
This is why I still have a patriotic service in my church.